What was a POW camp and a college campus?
Willis Webb
How many colleges can you name that have a branch named “Country Campus?” And, how many state universities have a former prisoner-of-war camp as part of their facilities?

Sam Houston (formerly Sam Houston State Teachers College) began some serious growth following World War II with the influx of military veterans in the college systems.

Since many vets were married, housing in general, but more acutely for couples, became an issue. Sam Houston’s enterprising president, Dr. Harmon Lowman, acquired the POW camp with its scores of barracks and converted it into a school facility primarily for married students.

Lowman and college officials named the new property Sam Houston Country Campus since it was in a rural area northeast of Huntsville.

During the time as a POW facility, prisoners were used as contract labor in agricultural operations in the area. In the beginning, the camp housed German prisoners of war but near war’s end, Japanese soldiers were held there.

The camp was completed in September, 1942 and consisted of 400 buildings, four deep water wells, a sewage disposal plant and an incinerator.

It also provided a hospital, a clothing shop, barber shop, laundry, bakery, cafeteria, commissary, gymnasium, guard house, fire station and motor pool. Many of these facilities were for American military and civilian personnel required to run the camp.

Country Campus went from incarcerating as many as 4,800 prisoners of war to accommodating 200 coeds, 300 single veterans and 800 married students. There were some classrooms, offices and recreational facilities.

Most classes were still at the campus in Huntsville so bus service was provided.

However, Lowman, a former baseball coach, saw that four baseball diamonds were built back-to-back on the rural acreage. That provided some recreational opportunities for students as well as a training and practice facility for the college team. Sam Houston became known for playing a very competitive brand of baseball.

To make full use of the baseball fields as well as some living quarters, Lowman rented them to the farm teams of major league baseball clubs. As many as nine minor league teams would come to Country Campus each year for 4-6 weeks of spring training.

One spring, in the mid-1950s, the Pittsburgh Pirates’ farm teams trained there and the next it was the Kansas City A’s (formerly the Philadelphia As, now the Oakland As).

In the spring of 1956, Pittsburgh’s minor leaguers were at Country Campus and featured a future major league power hitter in Dick Stuart.

He played for the Pirates Class AA Lincoln, Nebraska, team that year and hit 66 home runs. Stuart played in the majors for several years and hit a total of 228 homers, finishing in the top 10 for five seasons.

One of the highlights of those training camps though, was an evening meal with the managers and coaches. There were tall tales aplenty.

One such evening found a New Orleans sportswriter, Bill Keefe, providing his famous Cajun cooking for managers, coaches, Lowman and a 19-year-old college sportswriter.

Lowman was holding forth with some tall baseball tales, some of which were a bit salty but fitting for the earthy baseball types.

When everyone had eaten, Keefe began pouring sherry for all. A glass was offered to the college sportswriter, seated next to Lowman. The underage sportswriter looked around at everyone. Lowman laughed, nudged the youngster in the ribs and said, “Aw, heck, boy! Go on! I won’t tell on you if you won’t tell on me.”

Since the sportswriter’s boss was head of the journalism department and a teetotaler absolutely opposed to alcohol, the sportswriter wisely declined.

But he was utterly speechless at the human, down-to-earth performance of the college president. He was evermore Lowman’s fan.

Country Campus is still a part of Sam Houston but all that remains is a golf course and a hay meadow for beef cattle pastured there.

The old guard shack and some memories are the only things remaining from those early years.

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2010-12-16 digital edition

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